Having transformed domestic politics, Tony Blair is now constructing a new idiom for Britain's place in the world in which liberal values can coexist with a proper patriotic prideby David Marquand / March 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
The real interest of James Naughtie’s recent book on the psychodynamics of Tony Blair’s relationship with his chancellor of the exchequer lies in what it fails to say. His book (The Rivals, Fourth Estate) purports to tell the story of a political marriage and, on one level, it does so. Naughtie is a close observer of the Westminster village. He knows and likes both his protagonists and writes about them with sympathy and insight. But his book sits all too comfortably in the idea-free zone which now encompasses most of British political journalism. He is fascinated by the emotional tug-of-war at the heart of the Blair-Brown relationship, the playground battles associated with it, and the feverish gossip they generate. We learn far more than any sensible person would wish to know about the courtiers who swarm around the two men. We watch Brownies and Blairites squaring up to each other like the Jenkinsites and Callaghanites of old. We trace the relentless extension of the Treasury’s tentacles into the uttermost reaches of Whitehall. We patrol the uneasy frontier between Blair’s sphere-the grand flashpoints of Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Europe and (anti-climactically) foot and mouth-and Brown’s domain as the grand vizier of domestic policy.
The complex manoeuvres which led to Brown’s decision not to stand against Blair when John Smith died are described in exhaustive detail. There is much learned speculation about the hint, or half-hint, or possibly half-promise which Blair is alleged to have made to Brown, to the effect that he might not stay on as prime minister for the whole of Labour’s second term, and about its impact on Brown’s psychology. Ideas, principles and beliefs scarcely get a look in. In effect, we are asked to believe that the differences between the two most remarkable Labour politicians of the last quarter century can be reduced to a mix of seething emotion and personal calculation.
What might we learn from a richer account? Almost by definition, Naughtie does not answer that question, but he does prompt one or two thoughts. Ideologically, there is little to choose between the partners to his alleged marriage. I can discern no foundation in the assiduously-peddled notion that Brown is somehow to the left of Blair; that, because he is recognisably part of the Labour culture in which Blair is visibly ill-at-ease, he would like to construct a political economy closer to the social-democratic tradition. In his dour, Calvinist way, Brown has jettisoned as much of that tradition as Blair has done. It is conceivable that, in the silent watches of the night, he has felt more guilty about doing so, but there is no public evidence of any such emotion. The efflorescence of left and centre-left new thinking that marked the early 1990s passed him by as completely as it passed Blair. He is, if anything, even more fixated on the American social model, and more in thrall to what RH Tawney once called the tadpole philosophy of equal opportunity. By the same token, the clich?s of deregulation, reform and liberalisation trip even more easily off his tongue. Despite his Scottish roots, and his longstanding commitment to a Scottish parliament, he is no more sympathetic to the bottom-up politics of negotiation and compromise which must lie at the heart of any worthwhile social democracy for our time. He is the most impressive chancellor of the exchequer since Roy Jenkins but, whereas Jenkins was (and is) an instinctive liberal pluralist, Brown fully shares his department’s bossy centralism.
So what are the differences and what do they tell us? As everyone knows, Brown and Blair differ in background and formation. The solid, grammar-school educated son of the manse versus the charming but slightly insecure public-schoolboy; the Edinburgh student leftist versus the Oxonian pop musician; the biographer of James Maxton versus the politically innocent fledgling barrister-these stereotypes are the small change of New Labour watchers. The trouble is that they lead nowhere. The politically innocent barrister soon lost his innocence; the biographer of James Maxton became a pillar of budgetary orthodoxy. In themselves, the stereotypes do not explain why: life choices can never be inferred from background and formation alone. Indeed it would not be difficult to invent plausible alternative biographies-ones that never happened-with the same starting points. The Oxonian pop musician might have become a far-left enrag? or an Anglican priest; Maxton’s biographer, a rather grand Edinburgh professor or perhaps a media mogul.
A better way to search for clues is to begin where Naughtie leaves off. His narrative ends with the election last June; and events since 11th September have thrown his assumptions into disarray. In particular, the assumption that Blair and Brown are close enough in political weight and Whitehall clout for rivalry to be feasible now looks odd. I don’t share the view that 11th September altered the world for ever. I don’t even believe that we are now and will be, for the foreseeable future, at war with terrorism. But even if 11th September didn’t change the world, it did change the terms of trade in the Blair-Brown relationship. Blair has grown; Brown has stayed put. In comparison with Blair he looks-indeed he is-diminished. In part, this is because finance ministers are usually diminished when the guns go off. (Lloyd George was the exception that proves the rule, but he left the Treasury for the ministry of munitions not long after the war broke out.) However, there is more to it than that. Blair’s handling of the post-11th September crisis was impeccable. His speech to the Labour conference was the most impressive delivered by a serving British prime minister since Winston Churchill. His willingness to risk humiliation in Damascus and Jerusalem earned him cheap sneers from parts of the Tory party, but it was exemplary. He was not, of course, the main architect of the anti-Bin Laden coalition, but it is hard to believe that it could have been built without him. Above all, he began tentatively to construct a rhetoric of liberal patriotism, capable of trumping, perhaps even of burying, the mean-minded xenophobia which was the ugliest of Thatcher’s legacies. He showed that a British prime minister with the right mixture of courage, grace and forensic skill could play a significant, outward-looking, internationalist geopolitical role, and win the support of the British people for doing so.
On one level, of course, Brown’s relative diminution is simply bad luck. He is in the wrong job for global leadership and that is hardly his fault. But I do not believe that is the whole story. A more important reason is that it is impossible to imagine Brown in the role which Blair has filled with such panache. Try a thought experiment. Put Brown in Blair’s place during the last four months, and see what happens. Brown bearding Assad in Damascus, Brown braving Sharon in Jerusalem, Brown acknowledging the applause when Bush addressed Congress, Brown with the Muslim leaders in Downing Street, Brown establishing an entente with Putin, Brown sketching out a Blair-like role for Britain at the Labour party conference: these simply don’t play. This is not to belittle Brown. In all sorts of ways, he is made of sterner stuff than Blair. Intellectually, he carries more guns. He is plainly more interested in ideas, and analyses them with far more sophistication and rigour. His looming physical presence is more formidable. But he lacks Blair’s grace and, above all, he lacks his imagination.
At first sight, that may seem an odd formulation. Blair’s cast of mind is unmistakably a barrister’s, and barristers are not renowned for imagination. He is a pragmatist: what counts is what works. His forays into ideological speculation have been disastrous. He is clever, quick on his feet, an excellent listener, a superb questioner and good at mastering a brief, but he is not an intellectual. For him, ideas are counters in the game of high politics, not objects of fascination in their own right, as they were for Thatcher. But only intellectuals believe that imagination and intellectuality necessarily go together. Political imagination-the imagination of a Lloyd George, a Roosevelt or for that matter a Salisbury or a Thatcher-the kind of imagination that enables its possessor to see the balance of political forces in a different way and to fashion a new statecraft to take account of the shift of perspective, is more akin to the imagination of a creative artist than to any faculty that intellectuals possess. Gladstone had it, of course, and Gladstone was by any reckoning an intellectual. But his political imagination and his intellectuality sprang from different psychic roots and operated on different planes.
Blair is not a Lloyd George or a Roosevelt, but he has redrawn the map of British politics as effectively as Salisbury and Thatcher once did. Like theirs, his success had nothing to do with ideology. The gallant attempt by LSE director Anthony Giddens to give the third way intellectual coherence misses the point. Coherence would have stultified Blair’s imagination: he needed incoherence. He owed his triumph to his ability to imagine a new political alignment, to empathise with the hopes and fears of the new constituencies which it would have to embrace and to the tactical skill with which he put the fruits of his imagination to work. What the villa Tories of the 1880s were to Salisbury and Essex Man of the 1980s was to Thatcher, the puzzled, decent, ideologically ambivalent middle England of the 1990s was to him. The coalition he put together is now so much part of the political landscape that it is apt to be seen as the product of some sociological iron law. It was, in fact, the product of an imaginative statecraft of a very unusual kind-epitomised in Blair’s campaign to rewrite Clause Four of the party constitution. The leap of intuition that made that statecraft possible was Blair’s. Thereafter, Brown played a crucial role too, but he could never have made the leap.
The great question is whether Blair can make a second leap, and give his coalition an external, liberal-patriotic dimension in the process. For most of the long Conservative century that began with the Liberal 1885 split over Irish Home Rule, and ended with Labour’s victory in 1997, liberal patriotism has been confined to a minority and sometimes to a small minority. It flourished for a brief period around the time of the second world war. Though Churchill was himself a conservative, insofar as he could be classified, liberal patriots played an indispensable part in the coalition that brought him to power in 1940 and that sustained him in the crisis weeks that followed the fall of France. But before Munich and since the end of the Korean war, the right has had a near monopoly of patriotic themes. (Hugh Gaitskell might have broken it, if he had lived.) All too often, liberals have seemed uncomfortable with the language of patriotism and embarrassed by the emotions it evokes. For the left and centre-left, patriotism is more often than not archaic, Blimpish, a little vulgar: a slightly tawdry hangover from past glories which call for apology rather than celebration.
One result is that no one has managed to construct an idiom in which proper pride in country and culture can coexist with tolerance, generosity of spirit and unyielding opposition to jingoism in all its forms. Another is that an increasingly xenophobic right has generally dictated the terms of the debate about Britain’s post-imperial identity and role which has been central to British politics for more than 50 years. Yet another is that the liberal strands in the British national tradition have been submerged. The left has had two answers to the Pecksniffian insularity and self-righteousness of the right: a well-intentioned, but pale, historyless and imaginatively vacant multiculturalism, and a strident, almost fundamentalist liberalism with which no one but a handful of intellectuals can identify. The defiant Britain of Orwell and RH Tawney, the defiant England of Milton and his fellow republicans has been silent, or nearly so. Since most British people are properly patriotic, and do feel understandably proud of their country and its traditions, the consequences for liberal and social-democratic politics have been disastrous. The right has wrapped itself in the Union Jack, and the left has been naked.
It is too soon to tell if Blair can break with that pattern. There is no doubt that he wants to. Armed with the authority he has gained since 11th September, he is better placed to do so than any previous centre-left prime minister since the heyday of Victorian liberalism. His first big test will come over the euro. The signs are that he thinks he can win an early (or fairly early) referendum. I think he is right, but victory will not come by fudging. To win, Blair will have to play the same liberal-patriotic card that he played at the Labour conference. This means, amongst other things, that he will have to abandon the fiction that membership of the single currency is an economic issue. Apart from anything else, no one believes it; and a referendum fought on the economics of the euro would bore the electorate to tears. Blair will have to come out fighting for what he knows to be the truth: that the issue is quintessentially political; that what is at stake is the geopolitical role Britain is to play and, most importantly, what kind of country she is to be. He will have to persuade the British people that his generous and outward-looking patriotism is also theirs; that the mirror which the Tory party and the Murdoch press have held up to us for all these years purveys a demeaning caricature of the truth.
If he succeeds, and the odds on his doing so are better than evens, he will dominate politics at home as no prime minister has done since Mrs Thatcher in her glory days. For good measure, he will also be the strongest head of government in the EU. Much more important, a referendum victory for the euro would almost certainly be self-reinforcing, in the way that critical election victories are self-reinforcing. Membership of the single currency would soon be a fact of life; and liberal patriotism would have come in from the cold. The long post-war debate on Britain’s role and identity would still continue. To mention only two obvious examples, similar debates take place in France and Germany, often in a much more painful fashion: they are the stuff of post-war European history. But the debate would take place on different terrain. It would be about the implications of liberal patriotism, not about its desirability or feasibility. It would be about how to engage with the outside world, not about how to keep it at bay.
Central to it would be our old friend, globalisation. On this, Blair and Brown have so far been at one. For them (and, more explicitly, for Giddens) globalisation is an irresistible fate. Such coherence as New Labour possesses derives from that axiom. The rhetoric of modernisation and liberalisation is its mirror image. Because the ineluctable tides of globalisation are sweeping across all political economies, say the rhetoricians, modernisation is not a choice, but a necessity. And modernisation means liberalisation-rolling with the punch of the capitalist renaissance of our time. The world of the early 21st century is an iron cage, in which the alternative to liberalisation is atavistic, head-in-sand irrationality, either of the xenophobic right or the anti-capitalist left. This does not mean that national politicians have no room for manoeuvre. New Labour Mark II already looks rather different from New Labour Mark I. But it does mean that the room is very restricted. That is why the third way has triumphed over the social democracy of the past. Thatcher’s “There Is No Alternative” is dead. Long live Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s!
The trouble with this is that it confuses fate and fact. There is no doubt that globalisation is a fact, albeit a less novel fact than Giddens, Blair and Brown appear to think. It does not follow that it is also a fate. The globalisation theorists and statesmen of the 19th century, from Marx to Gladstone to Spencer, were as deterministic as the Blairs, Browns and Giddenses of today. They turned out to be wrong. The realities of an irreducibly plural world proved stronger than the iron laws of laissez-faire or Marxist theory. Of course, this may not happen again. This time round, universalist determinism may be borne out by events. But, if it is, it will owe its victory to the contingencies of political choice, and these are by definition unforeseeable. The need now is to disentangle fate from fact: to construct alternative models of modernisation, and to explore their implications for policy and for statecraft. It is hard to imagine Blair or Brown doing this. But political generations do not last long; and new men and women will soon be knocking on the doors of numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street.